Human beings are made up of both body and soul, which are distinct but inseparable except in death, both being equally important for human life and experience.


Human beings are made up of both body and soul. These two parts are distinct but inseparable in our nature state. They will be separated in death, but this is a result of the curse and will not continue indefinitely. The body is not ethically inferior, as some unchristian sources hold it to be, but neither is it the totality of the human person. The soul is immortal, not naturally but by virtue of God’s will, and possess faculties such as reason, will, and the various emotions. The body and soul function inter-dependently and together make up the human person. The heart is a common biblical metaphor for the human person, while whether the intellect or the will holds primacy within the person is a matter that has been debated for some time.

In his correspondence with the Corinthians, Paul provides two different but complementary accounts of the resurrection, in one emphasizing the resurrection of the body from the earth and in the other the descent of resurrection from above. In 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection is a recreating of the body at death and decomposition, which Paul denotes as a “spiritual body,” imperishable, with its distinct “glory” (15:41). This is guaranteed by the resurrection of Christ, through whom believers shall be made alive. This is in contrast to our present condition of having “earthly bodies,” made “of dust” (15:47–8), mortal, and liable to decay. Our “present body” is referred to by Paul as a “tent” (2 Cor. 5:4). Spiritual bodies are “immortal,” a sign that “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor .15:54). This doctrine is meant to have ethical consequences. If our inevitable death were final, and there is no resurrection, then it would is rational “to eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:32; probably a quote of the poet Menander).

In his second account (2 Cor. 5. 1–10) the emphasis is on heaven, our “heavenly dwelling,” which we are to “put on,” at which point the mortal “may be swallowed up by life.” Here it is not so much that the resurrection of Christ is the guarantee of resurrection life but rather the work of the Spirit in our lives in the present era (5:5).

The Body

We can draw some general inferences about the body and the soul from these accounts, which are corroborated throughout Scripture. First, there is no ethical inferiority of the body as distinct from the soul. The body is not “unspiritual.” Both body and soul are equally the gift of the Creator. The term “flesh” in the New Testament can be as in “flesh and blood,” while “flesh’ more often, in Paul’s writings, is a word for ungodliness, as in Galatians 5:16.

Ascribing a lower ethical place to the body has pagan sources, for soul and body together comprises the image of God according to Scripture. The togetherness of body and soul is stressed in the first account of the creation of man. Man is not a soul “captured” in the body, despite the biblical analogy of the body as a “tent” (2 Cor. 5:1) or a “prison-house” as Plato maintained. The analogy of a tent indicates that the body is perishable in the present phase of its life, but in the life to come it will be imperishable, a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 5:25). The problems of continuity between this life and the life to come are formidable. What it will be like to be disembodied and then to possess a “spiritual body” does not seem to have been revealed to us yet. Given that it is already true that that the believer’s body is the temple of God in which the activity of God takes place (Eph. 2:21), it is not transparently clear what the phrase “a spiritual body” entails, since it refers to an eschatological era not yet experienced. Yet we can say that it is a feature of the present phase of Christian life that it does not compare with “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). The believer presently has the “first fruits” of the Spirit and “groans inwardly” as he awaits the redemption of his body (Rom. 8:23), so whatever else will be true, the “spiritual body” will be a present unimaginable enhancement of our present “lowly body” but modelled on the “glorious body” of the glorified Savior (Phil. 3:21).

It is a mistake to say, “I am a soul and I have a body.” Your body is unique to you, and so it is not like a pair of glasses or an artificial heart or a wig. If your body is injured, you are injured. Your growth in maturity from infancy is made possible by the growth of the body. It is unique to you, and in this life it is you, while in the life to come it will be you again.

The Soul

The soul endures the death of the body: is it, then, immortal? Yes and no. Scripture points to its immortality, but it is not so immortal that even God could not end the life of a soul. But it is immortal because it is the will of God that it be so. Only God has necessary immortality; he is the source of the immortality of every immortal creature (1 Tim. 6:16). The Bible does not present a clear statement of the human soul’s immortality, but there are general statements supporting immortality (Eccl. 3:11), especially in Scripture’s accounts of the resurrection of the dead, which includes both the lives of the wicked and the godly (e.g. John 5:20, 1 Cor. 15:49, Phil. 3:21, and 2 Tim. 4:8).

The soul could be said to be physically “simple” in that it does not consists of parts, as the body does, but possesses powers of intellect, will and others. The physical heart is distinct from the lungs and other bodily parts, and each plays a vital role in the life of the body, physical life. The soul does not have physical parts but consists in faculties such as reason, will, and the various emotions. It also has the operations of the memory and the conscience. However, in the present life the soul is intimately related with the brain; there is a wonderful and presently little-understood interaction and adaptation between the two. An injury to the brain leads to the inhibiting of the soul, and its healing or growth, as an infant becomes a child, affects the operation of the soul. The brain affects the soul by occurrences such as losing consciousness by injury or by the operation of an anesthetic, or an inability brought on by something like suffering cruelty in childhood. When the body is at rest, or immobile following a stroke, the soul can still be active in dreams, and other mental activity, which can have an input from the memory. The memory is wonderful, a storehouse of facts, and of skills. The intimacy of the connection of the brain and the consciousness is also seen by the fact that the soul commands the soul in repertoires of what have been called “basic acts,” acts which are immediately producible. If the eye is working properly, a person can see a tree when looking at the tree. She does not have to make preparations, to perform an act in order to bring about another act, like the moving of a hand to write a signature with a pen.

The Heart

The Bible often uses the term “heart” in a metaphorical sense to denote the center of a person’s self. As in “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” and “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). There are references to the reason (Isa. 1:18) and to will (2 Pet. 1:12) and to conscience (Rom. 9:1), understood as a reflexive and secret “operation” of God, and to the memory (John 15:20). There have been different views as to which of these has primacy, a contest between those who give primacy to the intellect (“intellectualists”) and those to the will (“voluntarists”). Some who have been affected by Stoicism have sought the suppressing or the taming of the passions, as being “unruly,” tending to irrationality. Jonathan Edwards took a more positive line, arguing that “true religion lies much in the affections”. One should note that in the New Testament, “passions” have a negative flavor.

The Intellect

All acknowledge that the intellect has a two-fold role, as contemplative or theoretical on the one hand, which has the task of acquiring true beliefs about the world, and the practical on the other hand, in which the reason has the task of acquiring the knowledge the best way to gain a certain end. This is known as the practical reason. Such views naturally give the primary role to the reason in the mind. Most Reformed theologians, following Aquinas, take the reason to be the central power of the soul, which is present in humans but absent in non-human animals. Variant accounts of the image, as residing in the man-woman relationship, or in the inter-Trinitarian relations, have been proposed more recently, though a Trinitarian emphasis occurs as early as Augustine.

A certain amount of attention has been given to the disembodied life of the consciousness post mortem, taking a cue from dreams in sleep. The body is the source of many of our emotions at present, and in the moments after death there will not be a bodily experience, such as tiredness or fear, or the action of though they may be remembered. We know little about these matters, but the believer knows that he or she will be transformed into Christ’s likeness, for “we shall know that when he appears, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Further Reading

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